Motivation and Retention of Memory
It is clear that, to a large extent, we remember what we want to remember, but psychologists are interested in more specific questions concerning the effects of motivation on memory. Do we forget unpleasant experiences? Do we remember best those things that agree with what we already believe and tend to forget things that disagree? Do we remember unfinished tasks better than tasks that we have finished?
A considerable body of experimental evidence indicates that we tend to forget unpleasant material more quickly than that which we find pleasant, and some investigators use “repression” as an example of this. Repression is the disappearance from awareness of memories, or impulses, that cause guilt or anxiety. It is also one of the many defense mechanism we use everyday. its process is done in our unconscious mind.
Whether repression can be taken as an example of motivated forgetting is open to some question, however, since repressed material can be brought back into conscious awareness under certain circumstances. The problem here is whether “unrecoverability” is a criterion of the true forgetting. We cannot say with absolute certainty, however, that forgotten material may never be recovered. At any rate, some experiments have demonstrated that unpleasant memories tend to be forgotten more quickly than pleasant ones, even when there is little evidence that repression is involved.
Motivation plays an important role in retention in determining not only what we forget but what we remember, as well. Zeigarnik, for example, has demonstrated that we remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones, and Barlett has shown that ego-involvement results in greater retention. Barlett was told of a primitive tribe in Africa composed of individuals with “unusual memories for details.” These individuals, members of the Swazi tribe, earned their livelihoods by raising cattle, and they could remember in great detail transactions involving cattle that had taken place years before. When Barlett gave them tests for other details, however, he found their memories to be no better than average. He concluded that “the individual peculiarities of the cattle can be recalled freshly and vividly, because herds and all dealings with them are of tremendous social importance.”
Social psychologists have also demonstrated that we tend to remember those things that best fit in with what we already believe. Levine and Murphy conducted a study that measured both the rates of learning and forgetting of controversial material. In this study, one group of pro-Communist subjects was compared with a group of anti-Communists in the learning and retention of material dealing with the Soviet Union. The material used in this case was anti-Soviet. Pro-Communist subjects learned the material more rapidly than anti-Communist subjects.